If you cannot see the forest for the trees, it doesn’t mean you can’t see at all – you just lack the focus on what’s essential. It’s just that you cannot zoom-in and cut-out all those impressions, which should not be taken into account.

This happens a lot, for instance when you scan the shelves in a store, to find the appropriate offer – in most cases, you walk-out without buying anything: overload leads to paralysis, too much information hampers recognition of the essential – it makes you uncertain.

Often this is exactly what happens when developing all those products that end up on these shelves: also here often one cannot see the forest for the trees.

Since today technologically almost everything is possible, the manufacturers are eager to offer their achievements to their customers. To clean up this offer, the designers and marketers take a ‘less is more’ approach, in order to focus on the essential. They have learned to do this in a methodical way: a design process starts with research, upon which a synthesis compresses the observations into insights, which then form the basis for a concept development, which eventually leads to new products and services… And as so often, the problem starts right there, with the first step: in the research.

A fundamental part of the research activity for new product development is an observation: through observation, all issues are recorded, which for instance a consumer can face within a buying or use experience. Next to this, you record emerging and active trends, and in how far they have an influence on the market place, fashion and the consumer. Furthermore, you observe your competitors, and what they do in response to these trends and issues. And as so often, there was a lot that can be observed, its crucial to focus on the essential.

If you conduct this research like a scientist, in a lab, you are faced with a big problem: the lack of ‘reality’. To observe people in a lab environment, how they use products and services, is very insightful for developers and engineers and allows them to improve the design. But these observations do not reveal whether consumers actually will buy and use the design – this remains uncertain. This is because lab-users and focus groups are not real users – here the ‘reality’ is distorted.

But if you start to ‘secretly’ observe consumers, in their natural habitat so to say, it can easily happen that the observation becomes blurry and does not deliver the insights you are looking for. Why? Well, as soon as you want to know why the consumer is doing this or that, and you start asking him to verify your assumptions, you will influence him right away, and with that, the outcome of the observation and further analysis: all becomes uncertain again.

The scientist has a corresponding law for such a phenomenon: the uncertainty principle!

In short, this states that there is a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties simultaneously can be known. In other words, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known. An example? If you observe a cyclist coming down a street, you have two ‘properties’: if you focus on the cyclist, you’ll find out who he is, what bike he uses, but how fast he’s going and what’s surrounding him remains uncertain. To clarify the latter, you have to focus on the surrounding and observe the cyclist making a movement – but then he becomes blurry and ‘uncertain’.

What Heisenberg’s principle teaches us, is that we all have to live with uncertainty and that because of this you have to interpret what you observe: one could say that you need a form of empathy to gain insight out of an observation because what seems to be, is not how it really is! You have to imagine how these two ‘properties’ form a complete picture.

For developers and designers, this means that observation merely can be a starting point to achieve insight, never it can be used as a fact: it always needs interpretation of what has been observed and empathy with users and consumers to what their real requirements might be – it needs a design thinking. This mindset is the basis for finding new insights and creating solutions, which people really need and use. Asking people right away is not helpful in this, as we know – they are uncertain by law.

That’s why the acceptance of a new insightful solution is depending on whether consumers are able to overcome their uncertainty – if they can comprehend what this solution does for them. And this is not so easy in a world where, according to physical law, all remains uncertain.

Luckily there are ways to get clarity in this uncertainty: consumers get this by following their gut-feeling, the business by applying design thinking!

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